I’m learning a LOT of stuff about early music as I prepare for Kingdom Bardic. I’m learning more about music history, how stage performance began, the science of notation, oral/aural traditions, and, well, lots. of. stuff. The Interlibrary Loan service at my local library has become my best friend. A few weeks ago they got me this book, “Medieval and Renaissance Music: A Performer’s Guide” by Timothy McGee, and it’s such an eye-opener!
So, back in the day, the bulk of my musical studies were classically oriented. Now, I love me some good classical music, but the biggest reason I abandoned those studies as soon as I graduated college was because I wanted to have the ability to interpret songs how I best felt they should be played. Unfortunately, this is not a popular idea in the classical genre. For example, in the classical field, if you aren’t playing that staccato exactly how the composer wanted it (nevermind that he’s been dead for a few centuries and you can’t ask him), then it’s wrong, and how dare you even consider adding a tiny grace note at the start of that 16th-note run.
I hate that, because we musicians have a lot to offer in terms of interpretation. We can make our instruments truly sing, if we’re given enough leeway to do so. We can take that unassuming page of ink and breathe life into it, and it won’t always be terribly off-the-wall and avant garde.
I’ve always had a fascination with early music, but had never gotten to study much of it beyond what was glossed over in my Music 101 courses. I had assumed it was apples to apples, because it is the base from where classical music grows. When I decided I’d go out for this Kingdom Bardic thing, I’d kind of been internally preparing myself for the fact that I would have to suss out what some long corpsified anonymous songwriter was feeling when he or she penned that fermata.
Imagine my surprise when I read this:
In the musical tradition of the early centuries the composer assumed that the performer had the proper skills to convert the page of notes into music. What was written down was the composer’s share of the creation, but for the performer merely performing the written notes was not sufficient, and it is therefore insufficient for historical recreation. (McGee, p 8)
The composers of the early centuries expected the performer to add to the written score… (p 149)
The musician as a partner in the creation of music? AWESOME! I’m in!
Performing authentic Renaissance Christmas carols this last November with my small guitar.
McGee goes on to talk about how everything you need to know about music is already there on the page, and how in early music, the written score is basically just a blueprint for how the composer thought the piece might sound best — but all the shots (instrumentation, pauses, grace notes, and ornamentation) are called by the musician. And as long as you have a heart for honoring the temperment, tone, and soul of a piece (i.e. not doing something outright crazy, like playing a Gregorian Chant on an electric guitar…), you are well on your way to recreating an authentic historical performance.
Because, I’ll admit it; if I had an honest-to-goodness lute, it would never be let out of the house because they are so spendy and fragile. The thought of even taking a reproduction Renaissance Guitar (with oodles of fancy inlay and hand-carved bits) to an SCA event makes me cringe. Hell, I even go out of my way to treat that rescued guitar of mine with the utmost care and respect (of course, in its defense, it HAS probably had quite enough abuse back in it’s day to last it the rest of it’s lifetime…). But I still want to be able to present these pieces I have selected in the most accurate manner possible, and no matter what I play, I still appreciate the breathing room to follow my gut on interpretation.
Asking a dead guy how to play their music just isn’t my thing.
But listening to what those dots on the page tell me they need, is.
* * *
Really starting to get my practice routine on, and I’m beginning to see things come together. Found out the other day that I can’t just turn in one, massive, thesis for my three pieces — I have to do one, short paper for each. It’s not too big of a deal, but a tad frustrating as I was almost finished with my Massive Thesis. I went through the other night and split the document into three, and now I have a list of things I need to fill in and bulk up on. Yeeha!
I’m also in the process of scheduling a “dry run” for myself and other people in my Barony to present our entries before an audience, so we aren’t going into Kingdom A&S completely cold. Lots of fun! :-)